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What's Next For Boeing And The FAA

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A crash, a second crash and an investigation have all forced Boeing to change its view of a popular airplane, the 737 Max series. After a crash last year in Indonesia, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the thing that aviation industry executives commonly say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNIS MUILENBURG: The bottom line here is the 737 Max is safe.

INSKEEP: He also told Fox Business that 737 Max pilots had the information they needed to be safe. Since then, the investigation of an Ethiopian Air (ph) crash found that a flight-control system malfunctioned. And pilots could not recover, despite following all the instructions they received from Boeing. Yesterday, Boeing's Muilenburg released a video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUILENBURG: As pilots have told us, erroneous activation of the MCAS function can add to what is already a high-workload environment. It's our responsibility to eliminate this risk. We own it. And we know how to do it.

INSKEEP: What's this mean for Boeing and for the FAA, which also persisted in calling the planes safe? Richard Aboulafia is on the line. He's a longtime aviation analyst with the Teal Group and was once a consultant for Boeing.

Good morning, sir.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do you see any reason to doubt the Ethiopian findings?

ABOULAFIA: No. No. We just don't have the full details yet. You know, we've got the preliminary findings, which further the impression that the MCAS system is the primary issue to focus on here. But there are many other unanswered questions that won't be answered for, probably, another few weeks or months.

INSKEEP: What's a question that's on your mind?

ABOULAFIA: Well, we don't know why the plane was at full power. We don't know why they re-engaged the MCAS system towards the end. We can speculate. There's the question of why they weren't able to control it - this is the most important thing - manually, you know, using the trim stabilizer wheel. There are many issues that need to be answered, I'm afraid.

INSKEEP: Oh, so you are not entirely clearing the pilots of wrongdoing - or let's not say wrongdoing, but some kind of fatal error here? We know from the Ethiopian investigators that they followed all of Boeing's instructions. But there are still questions on your mind about how they tried to save that plane when it became apparent they were in trouble.

ABOULAFIA: I think a lot of people have questions. Do any of these questions necessarily impugn the pilot? No. No - or pilots, no. It could be a variety of factors. It's just open questions and some of them could involve pilot errors. But just as likely, it's some other issue that arose and that needs to be taken care of.

In other words, it can't just be a software fix that's downloaded into the MCAS system with the appropriate training. There could be other complications - technical complications - that are beyond the issue of pilot actions.

INSKEEP: Help me think through the sequence of events here. We had this crash in Indonesia. And things happened. There are one-in-a-million events. Planes go down. But then there was a second crash. And we learned that there was a lot of information about concerns raised by other pilots. And up to and through and even after that second crash, Boeing was saying the plane was safe. The FAA was saying the plane was safe. Was that second crash preventable?

ABOULAFIA: Well, that's one of the questions that we'll have to - you know, that will be investigated.

INSKEEP: Well, what's your instinct?

ABOULAFIA: My instinct is that after the first crash, there was nobody calling for this plane to be grounded. Maybe they could have acted faster. But on the other hand, there wasn't a lot that was known, frankly, about the complete details. And if there weren't necessarily crew errors, there were certainly procedural errors that could be pointed to at Lion Air - pretty significant ones.

So I think, perhaps, people were saying, well, this isn't necessarily the equipment itself. Did that lead to actions being slower than they could've been? That's conceivable but not necessarily. You know, in other words, I'm not really sure how the second crash would have been preventable, except, of course, if they had done an extremely aggressive and, you know, perhaps, impossible job in trying to figure out everything instantly overnight.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds that we have left, we heard Boeing's CEO say we own this problem. We know how to fix it. Should the public trust them?

ABOULAFIA: Well, I think their announcement was overdue. They really need to get in front of this, and they're finally doing that. I think they've been in front of it technically. But in terms of how they've been messaging it, that's been an issue. And, yes, I think working with the regulators - most importantly, the international oversight that we now have with other regulatory agencies - the process - not necessarily just Boeing on its own - but the process of these global regulators can be trusted.

ABOULAFIA: Much to discuss there - aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, thanks for your time.

ABOULAFIA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.